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5 things to know about the opioid crisis


Opioid drugs—such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), oxymorphone (Opana) and morphine—can help treat moderate to severe pain. But they can also be dangerous. In fact, as many as 1 in 4 people who take prescription opioids long-term may struggle with addiction, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That’s why if you or a loved one is thinking about taking opioids to cope with a pain problem, it’s important to get the facts first. Here are five things you should know about the risks and how to manage your pain safely.

1. Opioid misuse can happen easily

Even when you use opioids as directed, your body can build up a tolerance to them. That means you may need more of them to get the same relief. But the drugs are very powerful. Taking too many can stop a person’s breathing. More than 40 people die every day from prescription opioid overdoses, according to CDC.

And going off the drugs may not be easy. Stopping can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that may make it harder to quit.

2. No one is immune

Anyone can get addicted to opioids. And the longer they’re used, the easier it is to get hooked.

Some people may be especially at risk. The chances for addiction are greater if you have a personal or family history of substance abuse—or if you have a mental health condition like depression or anxiety.

3. Nonopioid painkillers are effective

Over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can manage many kinds of pain. And they have fewer risks and side effects than opioids.

Physical therapy, behavioral therapy and lifestyle changes (like exercise and weight loss) can also make a difference. In fact, these options may work better than prescription opioids in some cases.

Talk with your doctor about the pain-control options that are right for you.

4. If you really need opioids, there are precautions to take

If you and your doctor have decided that the benefits of opioids outweigh the risks, then aim to use the lowest dose possible for the shortest amount of time. You should also check in with your doctor regularly to talk about whether the meds are controlling your pain.

Finally, ask your doctor about the best way to taper off the drugs once your treatment is over. That can help reduce your withdrawal symptoms.

5. There’s a right (and wrong) way to get rid of leftover drugs

Never leave leftover opioids in your medicine cabinet or give them to someone else. Instead, bring them to a community drug take-back program. Or check the disposal instructions on the label. You may be able to safely flush some drugs down the toilet.   

You can throw them in the trash as a last resort. But take care to mix them with an undesirable substance like dirt or kitty litter. It’ll make the meds less appealing to curious kids or pets. And people who intentionally go through trash looking for drugs will have a harder time recognizing them. Seal everything up in a bag to prevent it from leaking.

Using opioids to cope with migraine pain?

Finding out what triggers your migraines may help you minimize your pain or even stop headaches before they start. That can help you rely less on pain meds—including opioids. Check out this list of common triggers and more migraine management tips.

Want to learn more about addiction and recovery resources? Contact your healthcare provider to find out your options.